Discussions on perspectives for Hong Kong’s democracy struggle and the crisis in China
On 10-11 October a youthful and extremely important meeting took place in Hong Kong. This was the second congress of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) section covering China, Hong Kong and also Taiwan. The congress – which was trilingual (Mandarin, Cantonese and English) – reflected the multinational character of the CWI in China and the region. Participants came from eight different nationalities – from Taiwanese to Indonesian. The congress finale – singing ‘The Internationale’ – was quite an achievement in so many languages. The congress collection, of HK$4,990, was also a strong signal that the CWI means business in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
For socialists, the past year has been a tumultuous one, with the end of the mass Umbrella Movement protests in Hong Kong and the shockwaves of China’s economic crisis rippling through the world economy.
“The Umbrella Revolution was the biggest mass movement in Hong Kong since 1989,” said Sally Tang Mei-ching, introducing the session on Hong Kong. In the aftermath of the struggle the social crisis has worsened, she explained. “The 25 richest tycoons have a combined wealth of HK$1.5 trillion, a sum greater than the Hong Kong government’s financial reserves,” said Sally. The numbers of working poor are rising despite the government’s claims that poverty is falling – because the official level is set so low.
The Umbrella Movement did not succeed in its goal of genuine universal suffrage because that would require nothing less than a revolutionary overthrow of the Chinese dictatorship (CCP) and the capitalist system it rests upon. The main leaders of this movement, from pan-democratic groups, students and NGOs, did not put forward a programme for such a fundamental change, nor was the strategy of occupations by themselves enough for such a task.
Since the movement subsided an uneasy standoff exists. The government is engaging in a ‘war of attrition’ using repressive steps like blocking the appointment of a pan-democrat, Johannes Chan Man-mun, as pro-vice-chancellor at HKU. But as Sally explained, the government is not confident to press ahead in the short-term with national security law Article 23, fearing this could reignite a mass movement.
Nathan from Hong Kong reported on the important work that Socialist Action (CWI in Hong Kong) has done in support of migrant workers and refugees. Recent protests by migrant domestic workers again highlighted Hong Kong’s unequal and discriminatory employment laws.
“Migrants marched in September to demand an increase in the minimum wage to HK$4,500 per month. But for local workers the minimum wage is higher, HK$6,149 per month. As there is still no law on standard working hours in Hong Kong, it is common for migrants to work 60, 70 or more hours every week. The government instead only granted a HK$100 increase to HK$4,110 per month, which means the wage for migrant workers has increased by just $250 over 17 years,” Nathan explained.
“A billionaire was created every five days in China last year, and every five days 41,000 farmers were driven off their land, 22,000 people died from air pollution-related diseases, and 930 workers were killed in industrial accidents.”
These comments were made by Pasha, introducing one of the best sessions of the congress – the discussion on China. Mainland China comrades participated in the congress by video link-up.
The wages of China’s vast migrant workforce increased 13.9 percent in 2013, Pasha explained, while per capita living expenses increased by 21.7 percent. This was mostly due to the rise in accommodation costs, which now account for around 50 percent of total living expenses for migrant workers. This was the situation before the economic crisis struck with full force as it has done this year.
The downturn has led to a sharp upturn in industrial disputes, with 1,642 strikes during the first nine months of 2015, compared to 1,379 strikes in the full year 2014, and 656 in 2013, he said. Three quarters of strikes this year (1,211) were over wage arrears.
Pasha outlined the effects of the crash that has erased over 40 percent of the value of the Chinese stock market. This is just a symptom of a much deeper economic malaise reflected in record levels of debt, industrial overcapacity and deflation, he said.
Gary, a young shop worker, said that China’s official trade unions represent the interests either of company profits or of state security and ‘stability’. The authority of the official unions is therefore very low. The Fushun Honda workers’ strike in 2010 was a turning point. From this the name ‘black union’ (allied with the police) gained currency – this is worse than a ‘yellow union’ (allied with the company).
He cited a poll among factory workers in Guangdong province, which refuted the CCP regime’s propaganda claiming among other things that workers can now elect their union branch chairman. It showed that 82 percent of workers don’t know who the head of their union is, and 95 percent have never taken part in an election.
Labour NGOs have played an increasing role in supporting and advising workers’ struggles. “The NGOs have said that if the workers are not radical and don’t try to confront the government, then they won’t suffer repression,” said Gary. “But now the reformist NGOs are being repressed and banned so there is no alternative to radicalisation,” he said.
Nationalism on the rise
How socialists should approach nationalism and growing demands for self-determination was another focus of discussion at the congress. This is an inescapable feature of world events as shown by the civil war in Ukraine, Crimea’s annexation, the growing working class anti-austerity mood for Scottish independence, developments in Catalonia and elsewhere.
Jaco from Hong Kong explained that the victory of the working class in the Russian Revolution was only possible because of the sensitive attitude of revolutionary leaders Lenin and Trotsky to the national demands of Russia’s minorities. By guaranteeing the right to secession, if this was what they wanted, the leaders of the Russian Revolution won over the oppressed nationalities to the idea of a voluntary socialist federation.
“In China, Xi Jinping is promoting Han nationalism in order to cement his rule. The increase in repression against minorities, including cultural repression especially in Tibet and Xinjiang, police control of religious buildings, banning of dress styles and religious customs, is increasing tensions and sowing the seeds of terrorism,” he said. The environmental crimes committed by the Chinese regime in Tibet and other minority regions, including large scale dam construction, was also feeding support for independence.
Xi’s Han nationalist agenda and China’s growing economic power are feeding a rise in independence sentiment in Taiwan, especially among youth. At the same time the national question cannot be solved on the basis of capitalism, particularly in an epoch of crisis and capitalist decline. “Today’s Taiwan is as close to independence as is possible on a capitalist basis, where it is under constant pressure from China,” said Jaco. “The pro-independence camp, even its left layers, lacks an anti-imperialist perspective. They focus on changing names, constitutions, but fail to address the issue of which economic class and which states exercise power, and what type of movement – in our view only a socialist movement – that is capable of showing a way forward.”
Vincent from Taipei outlined the many different strands, often with very confused ideas, within Taiwan’s pro-independence camp. There are right-wing forces, he said, whose support for independence is based on the desire for a ‘normal state’, which look to US and Japanese imperialism for support. Within this there is a racist layer that use crude anti-mainlander arguments.
There is also a growing left-wing layer supporting independence, especially the younger generation, and these put forward a generally correct left or anti-capitalist critique of the Ma government’s pro-China trade pact for example, said Vincent. But the same groups have an inconsistent and confused position on other issues like Japan’s re-militarisation, falsely seeing this as useful leverage against the Chinese state.
Socialists stress that it is only the working class, acting independently of all capitalist governments and parties and linking up internationally, that can defeat capitalism and thereby open the road to genuine self-determination. The CWI supports the right of self-determination for Taiwan, as part of an all-Asian and global struggle against capitalism – for a voluntary socialist confederation in East Asia and beyond.
Other discussions at the congress included Socialist Action’s election campaign in Hong Kong (Sham Shui Po district council) and party building. Tony Saunois of the CWI’s International Secretariat introduced a discussion on world perspectives speaking via video link-up from London. The consensus among participants was that the congress discussions helped to sharpen our political analysis and provide a great basis to build the forces of genuine socialism in China and the wider region.